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Though laptops still don’t challenge all the benefits of a desktop computer, the gap will continue to narrow, and for mobile workers a laptop is the way to go. Helen Bradley looks at differences between the stay and go versions, and what new-breed computers will offer soon.

Active ImageAn increasingly mobile workforce demands solutions to go that are small, robust and portable. Many jobs that were once deskbound are no longer, and these workers are bypassing the traditional computer desktop in favour of laptops that travel with them. While desktop computers are far from a dying breed and will remain the machine of choice for most workers, they are being replaced where mobility is required.


Whether a laptop can replace a desktop depends on the kind of work you do. For high-end graphics work a laptop’s LCD screen and graphics technology is not a viable alternative to the better colour representation of a large CRT monitor and a dedicated graphics card. However, for many office tasks the features of a standard laptop are sufficient for day-to-day work. For users who prefer a bigger screen, a full-size QWERTY keyboard and a mouse, most laptops have ports for attaching them and the laptop can remain closed on the desk providing just processor and hard disk functions. Some laptop computers can be plugged into optional docking stations, such as HP’s Perfect Office, which includes a docking station, adjustable stand, keyboard, mouse, and surge protector, and which provides an ergonomic workstation for laptop users. HP’s 3-in-1 NAS Docking Station allows a business with less than 10 users to create a small workgroup environment using laptops, and provides data backup and recovery, and file and printer sharing.

While, at their most basic, laptops and desktops both provide computing solutions for business users there are benefits and disadvantages with each. In general, laptops cost more when assessed on pure computing power. They are designed to maximise space with small custom manufactured parts, and so it’s not always possible to upgrade a laptop to a larger hard disk whereas this is a simple process on most desktops. Of course a desktop computer is not portable whereas a laptop computer is fully portable and can often be operated for some hours without being connected to electricity.

Desktop computers, when plugged into the office network, have all the benefits of being part of the network, such as the ability to write data to network drives and to be part of a backdrop routine. This is seldom the case with laptops when they are operated out of the office. One consequence of this is that the use of laptop computers raises issues of data security and backup that are more easily managed in an office. The more a laptop is used outside the office the more likely it is to contain sensitive corporate data, and yet it’s also more likely to be left sitting on the back seat of an unlocked car or in an overhead locker in a plane. But in an office situation, network passwords, locked doors and security desks protect the data on a desktop computer.

While it’s unlikely that a desktop computer will fall off the desk, the same can’t be said for a laptop, which runs the risk of being accidentally dropped. It is important that the mechanisms inside the laptop are engineered to withstand potential damage and that the laptop case is robust enough to protect its contents. Computers like the new MacBook and the Toshiba Portégé M400 include motion sensors that detect the machine being dropped and protect the hard drive, and the Portégé has a magnesium-alloy case and a polycarbonate screen that is less likely to crack if the machine is dropped.

In days gone by you decided to buy a Mac or PC based mostly on what software you intended to run. If you were required to use Mac software then your only choice was to use a Macintosh computer. Programs like Virtual PC and Mac Boot Camp allow you to run Windows on a Mac and, in future, all new Macs will be running Intel chips. Combine this with open source software that will run on a range of operating systems and the decision to buy a Mac or PC is less black and white than it was.

Choosing a Computer

For mobile users there are considerations to take into account when choosing a laptop. Some are better suited to different levels of mobility. Laptop screens vary from 12 inches or less to 17 inches or more in width, and while the extra screen width is nice to have it adds to the weight of the machine. As a trade-off a frequent traveller may choose a smaller screen and a lighter laptop with a longer battery life. On the other hand, a user who only needs to take their computer home to do work at night will be more likely to opt for a larger screen with its heavier weight and reduced battery life as it will be plugged into mains power most of the time anyway.

If you’re in the market for a new computer for your business you’ll need to make a choice between the convenience of a desktop, its expandability and ease of repair, and a laptop with its portability and flexibility. For jobs that remain desk-centric a desktop computer is still the machine of choice allowing you to change out various components if they break without having to send the entire machine for repairs.

According to Benjamin Gray and Simon Yates of Forrester Research, "As the performance gap between them shrinks further, laptops will continue to gain market share at the expense of desktops, but the price gap will sustain desktop sales for the foreseeable future." Approximately two-thirds of corporate workers remain desk-centric and have limited need for mobility, especially in instances in which the value of greater mobility from a productivity standpoint can’t be easily measured. "Nevertheless," they add, "Forrester expects that by the end of the decade approximately 35 percent of the computers deployed in North American and European businesses will be laptops, up from about 24 percent at the end of 2005."

Among laptop computers, small but handy features differentiate models and brands. One genre of laptops, the tablet PC, has a swivel screen which opens like a clamshell PC but then allows the screen to twist around and lie flat on top of the computer so the user can operate it with a stylus using a special tablet version of Windows XP. There are also Ultra Mobile PCs or UMPCs like the Vega 512, which has a touchscreen and a very small footprint (it sits in the palm of your hand), and which still manages to include a full-size QWERTY keyboard and runs a full version of Windows XP.

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Toshiba has added new functionality to the case of its Portégé R400, a 12-inch tablet PC which has a front panel that displays incoming emails and appointments even when the laptop screen is closed. HP’s new alliance with internet phone company, Engin, will see the Engin Soft Phone pre-configured on HP business laptops allowing for potential savings on calls which can be made using the Engin internet phone service. The new MacBook laptops bring video conferencing to mobile users by providing a built-in iSight video camera for on-the-go conferences.

Other features that you will see on new-breed computers include card slots for reading SD and other camera/PDA phone cards, and fingerprint security, which requires the user to drag a finger across a scanner to be able to use the computer and built-in wireless. The Thinkpad R, T, X and Z series from Lenovo, for example, incorporates built-in mobile broadband facilitated through the company's partnership with Vodafone and supports 3G, GPRS, and High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) connectivity.

With any mobile solution security becomes a prime issue. Not only are connections to public WiFi networks gene
rally insecure but the more a computer is used for day-to-day work the more likely it is to contain valuable corporate data. Security issues relating to this data include not only the necessity of backing up and making that data available on the corporate network where it is required to be accessed by other people, but also protecting the data in the event that the computer is lost or stolen.

The new Windows Vista system provides software for a Trusted Platform Module or TPM chip that can be built into laptops to add hardware level security such as encrypted passwords. Windows Vista uses it in its new BitLocker Drive Encryption technology. Expect manufacturers to begin to provide these chips preinstalled in laptops in future.

While deskbound workers will continue to use desktop computers simply because they are the most appropriate solution for their needs, anyone whose job involves an element of mobility should seriously consider a laptop. Making a choice about the best laptop computer is a process of determining needs and finding a solution that matches those needs.

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